Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Jamie Benidickson, Idleness, Water and a Canoe: Reflections on Paddling for Pleasure

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Jamie Benidickson, Idleness, Water and a Canoe: Reflections on Paddling for Pleasure

Hallie E. Bond
Adirondack Museum
Benidickson, Jamie. Idleness, Water and a Canoe: Reflections on Paddling for Pleasure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. 299 pp., 30 illus. Cloth $55.00, ISBN 0-8020-0945-X; paper $17.95, ISBN 0-8020-7910-5.

1 Jamie Benidickson undertook a very ambitious project, and a very worthwhile one — nothing less than a "study of the place of the canoe in Canadian life." His subtitle reveals his general approach, and the reader should keep this approach in mind. While there is a good deal of history in the book (much of it fascinating and not well explored elsewhere) the book is indeed "reflections," rather than a history, since the usual standards of historical scholarship and organization have been unevenly applied. This ultimately reduces the value of this work to the historian or student of material culture.

2 While this is nominally a book of reflections, they are not the author's reflections like another recent work on riparian life, John Jerome's extremely well-done Blue Rooms: Ripples, Rivers, Pools, and Other Waters (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997). Jerome develops his own observations, buttressing them with references from human and natural history, and presenting them in his own eloquent and elegant style. Benidickson has used the essay-ist's random "reflective" way of organizing his work, but he uses other people's observations, sociological studies, recent news items and historical vignettes.

3 The wide variety of sources Benidickson uses will intrigue students of material culture and Canadian studies. He relies heavily on first person published accounts, but also includes biographical material, contemporary advertisements, political cartoons, sculpture and popular literature.

4 An interdisciplinary book like this could have benefited from even more illustrations, and ones that were integrated in the text rather than collected in two sections. Most of the illustrations are well chosen to complement the text, but some, like the ice-canoe photo and the photo of the dragon boat, seem to be only peripherally connected to the story.

5 Benidickson explores three major themes: the attractions of recreational canoe use, the practice of wilderness travel, and the cultural legacy of canoeing. He is strongest on the themes to which his "reflections" style is best suited: why people paddle for pleasure and the experience of canoeing. While none of this is directly about canoes as material objects, the book is useful to the student of material culture in establishing a context for the development and use of canoes for recreation.

6 Why do people paddle for pleasure? Beni-dickson discusses the attractions of solitude, the spiritual aspects of the wilderness, and the benefits of outdoor exercise to both the body and the character, but he neglects to discuss actual physiological benefits. It is surprising, for example, that he did not explore the scientific claims for the "balsamic vapours" and ozone of the woods that were believed to revitalize the body as the solitude of the woods revitalized the spirit or the "wilderness cure" for consumption.

7 Benidickson's anecdotal style is well suited to exploring the experiences of a wide variety of people who have paddled for pleasure, many of whom have been neglected by most historians. The discussion of children's summer camps is particularly useful. His chapter about canoeing women is strongest when he discusses women of the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, he hasn't uncovered any surprises about nineteenth and early twentieth-century women and occasionally uses a somewhat patronizing tone.

8 Exploration of how canoeists paddle, build boats and camp form the weakest parts of the book. The essayist's style leaves large gaps in themes, which the historian would wish more systematically explored. The technology of canoe design and production is perhaps the most significant of these and one of particular importance to the study of material culture. Benidickson's chapters "What Kinda Boat Ya Got?" and "The Craft and the Craftsman" attempt to sort out and establish a chronology for the development of Canadian canoe types (an admittedly murky story) but they almost totally neglect to include the influence of the pressure of the market. For a Canadian book, it is particularly surprising that there is very little discussion of the famed cedar-strip method of construction, the market which brought it about, and its advantages for factory production.

9 Benidickson is not rigorous in his use of the historical method. He often neglects to examine systematically change over time. In many cases, his evidence is solely prescriptive — literature, advertisements, or what people said about themselves; rarely does he test the conclusions drawn from this type of material with statistics or other, more objective sources. He also makes factual errors throughout the book, as well, which raise concerns (founded or not) about the rest of his work; he confuses the early unplanked type of canvas canoe (which did not take off) with classic cedar-canvas construction (which revolutionized canoe building), and he gives the wrong date for the establishment of the New York State Forest Preserve. He has not used the most up-to-date sources in some cases; his secondary work on the Adirondacks is eighteen years old and has been superseded by several, much more thorough works.

10 It is surprising that Benidickson doesn't define "canoe" until chapter nine, and then he makes no reference to the characteristic narrowness of the type. This seems to indicate a very broad notion of canoes and canoeing. The object-conscious historian will notice that Beni-dickson often uses as examples anecdotes about decked sailing canoes and open cruising canoes of the cedar-strip or wood-canvas type interchangeably, and even occasionally includes evidence from the history of sculling.

11 Benidickson is also vague on the definition of "pleasure paddler." His examples include early visitors to the wilderness who were under the care of professional guides as well as the members of the ill-fated Wallace Hubbard expeditions in Labrador in the early part of this century. The former I would not define as "paddlers" since they were passive with regards to the actual transportation. The latter were certainly not in the bush for pleasure or recreation — Dillon Wallace and the Hubbards would have described themselves as explorers.

12 Idleness, Water and a Canoe is an absorbing look at the people who have paddled canoes as canoeing moved away from its origins as utilitarian transportation. The book gives context to the way in which the evolution of paddling paralleled the evolution of thinking about the wilderness from consumable resource to thinking about the wilderness as a repository of spiritual values — a fundamental evolution in the development of outdoor recreation. What Benidickson does not elaborate on, although he includes much evidence of it, is a third phase in the evolution of paddling for pleasure in this century. In the twentieth century, much canoeing has completely lost its connection with destinations. This development began around the turn of the century when many of the canoes on the water were being paddled by people who rented them at city liveries such as those on the Charles River in Boston and paddled around for an hour or an afternoon. In the late twentieth century, many canoeists repeatedly shoot short stretches of rapids, "portaging" to the head of the run by car. Just being in a canoe is the aim.

13 Jamie Benidickson has given us an overview of the place canoeing has had in Canadian life for a century or more with evidence that almost always assumes a very close connection between paddling a canoe and what many would call "the wilderness experience." Non-Canadian readers may wonder if it isn't just an accident of geography that the wilderness experience in Canada is primarily gained from the quarterdeck of a canoe, for in the United States the reactions to wilderness Benidickson explores have been gained — and philosophized about — not only from a small boat, but from the back of a horse or on foot. What Jamie Benidickson has given us is not only a look at one place of the canoe in Canadian life, but the suggestion that the strong connection between canoeing and the distinctive Canadian landscape has much to do with the place of the canoe in Canadian consciousness.